Elouan Wines Draw Ire in Oregon Over Labeling

California vintner contends he's in compliance as some cry foul over appellation use

by Peter Mitham
Joe Wagner, who founded Elouan after selling the successful Meiomi Pinot Noir brand, is confident his Oregon Pinot Noirs are labeled in compliance with TTB regulations.

Rutherford, Calif.—Should wineries be able to name the viticultural areas where their grapes originate if they’re not located in the same AVA, let alone the state of origin?

That’s one element of the brouhaha facing California’s Elouan Winery, which has raised the ire of an Oregon lawmaker and the Oregon Winegrowers Association by naming the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys on labels of its Pinot Noir.

While the bottles designate the wine’s origin as Oregon, it goes a step further by naming the viticultural areas where the grapes came from. Another wine produced by Elouan’s parent company, Rutherford, Calif.-based Copper Cane LLC, plays on the Willamette Valley name. Willametter Journal describes the Pinot Noir as made from grapes “grown in the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range.”

The labelling concerned state Rep. David Gomberg, who bought a bottle Elouan Pinot Noir at his local Safeway and took umbrage at the use of the “Oregon Coast” designation on the wine’s back label. He then ordered a $29.99 bottle of Willametter Journal online on Aug. 6 from a Total Wine in Sacramento, Calif., which shipped it to his home.

“It was not until I received the product that I learned it was produced in California,” he wrote in an e-mail of a complaint to Oregon assistant attorney general Ariel Dreher on Aug. 14. “However, the front of the label reports, quite oddly, that the wine is from ‘the Willamette region of Oregon’s coastal range.’ The back says ‘Territory of Oregon.’ Even the receipt says ‘Willamette.’”

Oregon Winegrowers contact TTB
In the meantime, John Pratt, president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, had written Janet Scalese, director of the alcohol labeling and formulation division of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in Washington, DC.

“OWA is concerned that the label for Copper Cane’s ‘The Willametter’ wine and case packaging for the ‘Elouan’ wines are likely to cause confusion as to the geographic origin of the wine,” Pratt wrote, asking the TTB to revoke its approval of Willametter Journal’s label and censure what it claims are “improper” markings on cases of Elouan’s Pinot Noir. “The label and case packaging appear to misuse Oregon geographic terms of viticultural significance, and such misuse is likely to damage the goodwill of Oregon’s protected appellations of origin.”

Soon, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) was firing off its own letters to both Copper Cane and the TTB.

OLCC notes that some of the wines would not qualify for an AVA designation but it also acknowledged that they don’t explicitly purport to have been made within an Oregon appellation, either. The OLCC has asked Copper Cane to supply production, transfer in bond and bottling records for seven wines sold under the Elouan and Willametter Journal by Sept. 28. In the meantime, commissioners will receive a delegation from the Oregon Winegrowers Association at its regular meeting on Sept. 21.

The storm has taken Copper Cane principal and winemaker Joe Wagner – best known for his celebrated Meiomi brand – by surprise.

Wagner launched Elouan, which produces 60,000 cases a year, as the follow-up to Meiomi with the aim of working with Pinot Noir from Oregon and other, complementary, brands showcasing the variety from vineyards further south in Monterey and Santa Barbara.

“The vision was looking at the West Coast of the United States and the breadth of what Pinot Noir can span, from as far south as Santa Barbara County to as far north as Willamette Valley,” he told Wines & Vines. “All the wine comes from a very singular mentality and singular philosophy, and all of our infrastructure is here. … We can do everything in one house and really focus and drill into what we want to achieve with each one of these wines.”

‘Working within the regulations’
Wagner doesn’t deny that he vinifies and finishes his wine in California, but he rejects allegations that he buys bulk juice for Elouan or the other labels. The fruit, he says, is kept cool with dry ice and shipped south in refrigerated trucks from the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue valleys. “We believe we’re working within the regulations with the way we’re appellating things as ‘Oregon,’” Wagner said, adding he’s also been in touch with the TTB and is confident he’s in the clear.

How his company produces the Elouan wines reflects how much the wine world has changed since the rules governing viticultural areas were first drafted, he says.

“There are a few odd [regulations] in there from a federal standpoint as well as from a state level there in Oregon – Oregon has the strictest regs in the nation for wine,” he said. “We’re in a very different world than when those regs were created, and the methodology of how we make our wines and where we make our wines is at a different level than where it was 15, 20, 30 years ago.”

Where a grape is from counts for more than what the winemaker does when it comes to viticultural areas, Wagner said. “The location of where the grapes were grown, that is really the most determining factor in the quality and style of the wine,” he said. “To me it makes no difference whether we make the wines in Oregon, California, Nevada, or possibly even New York. We still want to convey the true nature of where the grapes and the quality we expect from those regions.”

The controversy revives the discussion in 2015 following the creation of the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. The Walla Walla AVA straddles the Oregon-Washington state line, but the Rocks sits entirely within Oregon. This means wineries in the larger appellation can’t label wines made with grapes from the Rocks with the sub-appellation’s name unless they’re based in Oregon.

TTB proposed a rule that would let wineries label wines with AVAs in adjacent states, but wine industry representatives from Washington to California roundly rejected the proposal.

OLCC executive director Steve Marks said the commission will gather information before deciding whether Wagner has run afoul of the law and what action, if any, is needed. The matter may best be addressed by the TTB. (TTB public affairs director Tom Hogue told Wines & Vines the bureau had no comment.)

Marks doesn’t blame those in the industry for filing a complaint, which he says is rare at the state level but not uncommon in the beverage alcohol industry as a whole. “Everyone wants to protect their interest in those AVAs,” he said. “Napa Valley certainly wouldn’t want us finishing partially produced products out of Napa Valley here in Oregon and marketing them as California wine.”

Posted on 09.19.2018 - 09:43:12 PST
I can't blame the Oregon trade organizations for their concern since the Wagner wines have no sense of place and show no traces of terroir at all! He is simply making wine to a recipe and using Oregon as a marketing device!
That being said they are damn good at wine recipes for the masses and are genius marketers!

Posted on 09.21.2018 - 21:45:13 PST
From what I have seen manifested in their culture, marketing, and sales presentations Copper Cane is presenting a faceless, soul-less, disingenuous campaign for their share of revenue & monies at the expense of 50 years of effort to develop an Oregon identity that separates their Pinot Noir from other regions in the U.S.. Any one who engages in this conversation should demonstrate the integrity and depth of their convictions over this important discussion should publish their name. There are technical skills and "recipe" formulas to make wine but even the "masses" alluded to in this comment know when wine is worse than bad and is out right boring. Elouan is only being prepped to be sold to the next batch of investors. Can anyone tell me what ROI tastes like?
Gordon Rappole